The lure of Grass and the cinematography of Shahsavan nomads
By Fereydoun Safizadeh
January 30, 2003
Since the 17th century Western interest in the Middle East, Islamic lands and peoples was often one of projected imagination and romantic depiction of Turks, Arabs, Persians and others. In addition to sex and harem life of Middle Eastern kings and elites that fascinated travelers, adventurers, explorers, writers, and poets, there was a romantic interest in the pure bedouin (and pastoral) nomads as primitive contemporaries of Europeans.
The timeless, unchanging and "the uncorrupted manners" of nomads not only found expression the written descriptions of numerous observers (Burckhardt 1831), it was also dramatically portrayed by Cooper and Schoedsack in the film Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925) their renowned adventure travel documentary, and through the popular man-against-nature theme of the film focusing on the annual migration of the Bakhtiari nomads in central Iran. Despite some flaws, Grass remains one the most dramatic human experiences ever filmed, and it served as a catalyst for the filming of The Shahsavan Nomads of Iran. See 52 snap shots form the film
My original objective was to retrace the footsteps of Cooper and Schoedsack to film the Bakhtiari annual migration in the 1970s. Logistics, proximity and familiarity focused the project on the Shahsavan pastoral nomads of Azerbaijan in northwest Iran. The filming coincided with the 1979 Islamic Revolution and it forced a scaling down of the project.
This paper interrogates the representation of the Shahsavan pastoralists in the context of the representations of Iranian nomads in documentary cinema and ethnography. It pays particular attention to the notion of "salvage" anthropology, efforts to show an earlier and more pristine way of life, and the persistence of such ideas, theories and perspectives for understanding nomadic life and its place in the Middle East and Islamic societies.
I saw the film Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925) in 1971 in a class on anthropological documentary film. For a foreign student having been through high school and undergraduate education in the United States in the late 1960s and having had limited encounter with subjects related to his country seeing the film Grass was important and griping.
Earlier, my college studies had shifted from a fast-track to becoming a mechanical engineer to a slow-track search for an understanding of Iranian culture and society, and ultimately its translation for my peers. As a young student I had brought with me from Tabriz a particular interest in the Iranian countryside. The urban-rural cultural and economic divide had been a subject of much childhood pondering probably because of the impact of upbringing by individuals who had come from the countryside.
The film Grass arrived at a time when I was searching for ways to intersect my interest in photography with the larger worlds of filmmaking and social studies. Upon seeing Grass, the desire to retrace the footsteps of the Bakhtiari provided the needed focus for an undergraduate thesis, an ethnographic film project about village life and wheat harvest in regionally famous village of Liqvan in Azerbaijan in northwest Iran. This launched me into graduate studies in anthropology, and with the end of course work for the graduate studies, a valiant effort was made to return to filmmaking and the tracing of the footsteps of the Bakhtiari nomads.
By this time the idea that the anthropological documentary film crew should be small, only the camera and sound-person, was too entrenched in my thinking. And with the my thesis Ph.D. research slated for northwest Iran, the retracing of the Bakhtiari foot steps fifty years later in southwest and central Iran appeared insurmountable.
But the Shahsavan, although not as famous as the Bakhtiari or the Qashqa'i tribes, were close at hand in Azerbaijan, and still practiced their colorful seasonal migration between the Aras River in the Moghan Steppe and the high pastures of Sabalan mountain range located between Sarab, Ardabil, and Meshkin Shahr. Finding contacts, managing the logistics of filmmaking and transportation did not seem so overwhelming.
The time was January 1978. Oil income had dropped, prime minister Abbas Hoveyda had been replaced with Jamshid Amuzegar, demonstrations had marred the Shah and Queen's visit to Washington, Dariush Homayoun's letter about "black reaction" had triggered demonstration in Qom and a number of persons had been killed by the government forces, and on January 14th? on the 40th day observances of the funeral of the Qom dead, Tabriz had erupted as anti-government demonstrators burned banks and cinemas and clashed with the police and the army.
The country moved more and more into a period of political turmoil, but my spirit was not dampened about pursuing the project of filming the daily life of the Shahsavan in the winter and summer camps and their 3-4 week long colorful seasonal migration between the Moghan Steppe and the Sabalan area. Needless to say, seasonal migration takes place only in its season. You have to film it or wait a whole year to get similar conditions again. There was little time to mobilize interest for the project.
Help came in the way of Dr. Nader Afshar Naderi, a French educated anthropologist, who had been the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tehran University, and at the time was the director of Institute for Peasant and Rural Studies. He had made a number of anthropological documentaries among tribes in central Iran. He accepted the proposal, provided 5,000 feet of raw film and assisted with enlisting the help of National Iranian Radio and Television for developing and editing of the footage.
The main objective for the project was the visual preservation of fragments of nomadic lifestyle in Iran. My first-hand acquaintance with the Shahsavan nomads had begun with a number short-term trips, made between 1971-1978, to observe and to photograph the changes taking place in the pastoral society due to the effects of the introduction of large-scale agro-industrial development schemes in the Moghan Steppe in northeast Azerbaijan (now Ardabil province). I was also interested in the effects of rapid socio-economic change on the migratory patterns and practices of the Shahsavan.
It should be noted that a significant body of literature on pastoral nomadism such as the works of Fredrik Barth (1961), Neville Dyson-Hudson (1972), William Irons (1972), Nader Afshar Naderi (19xx), Brian Spooner (1973), and Lois Beck (1978), Gene Garthwaite (1983) contributed to the development of better understanding of the socio-economic organization and migratory patterns of the tribal society in Iran. Of particular interest was the fieldwork of Richard and Nancy Tapper carried out among the Shahsavan a decade earlier (Nancy Tapper, 1978; Richard Tapper, 1966, 1979).
My spouse and I spent much of January of 1978 in the Shahsavan winter camps, qishlaq, in the Moghan Steppe pursuing the idea of making a documentary film with the Shahsavan. We stayed in the camp unit, oba, of Mr. Al-Heidar Sadeghi, who was one of the leaders of the Moghanlu taifeh, lineage.
Mr. Sadeghi introduced us to various subsections of the tribe and his presence granted us legitimacy among the Shahsavan. His support and personal interest turned the idea of making a film on the Shahsavan into a reality. Arrangements were made to film life in the winter camps and to follow the Moghanlu taifeh on its southward migration over the traditional routes to its summer camps on and around the Sabalan mountain range.
Early in April 1978 we departed from Tehran but the trip was delayed for a week in Tabriz where we needed to obtain the final travel permit from the Governor General's Office and the security forces. The tight security measures taken were a response to the political unrest in the country at the time, and the fact that the Moghan Steppe and the road leading to it bordered the Soviet Union.
We arrived at the Shahsavan qishlaq by mid-April and spent two weeks observing the daily life in the winter camps, and prepared to undertake the elaborate spring migration that begins approximately 45 days after Norooz, the Iranian new year and the spring equinox. We began to film the Moghanlu lineage in the camps and in the surrounding pastures on the Steppe in early May.
Being a male-female team provided us the opportunity to gain access to male and female spheres of activities, and in particular to be able to film within the women's alachiq, tents. Women in the Shahsavan society, like women in many other tribal societies in the Middle East, adhere to rules of sexual segregation. Unrelated males are not allowed into the women's domain, and information about women is provided by male informants. n the other hand, the Shahsavan women do not wear veils, however in the presence of unrelated men, they cover the lower portion of their face. Older women and young girls do not strictly adhere to this code of behavior, while newly wed women had to comply.
In our research and filmmaking, my spouse spent considerable time in the women's tents observing and gaining insight into the demanding nature of women's work in a tribal society. A Shahsavan woman's day often starts well before dawn and continued late into the night. Women and girls fetch water, bake bread, churn milk into butter, yogurt and cheese, spin wool, weave storage bags and rugs, and prepare the daily meals. The differences between men and women's activities are interesting. Men are primarily engaged in shepherding, in the various decision-making processes concerning the buying or selling of flocks, and the determination of an appropriate time to commence the seasonal migrations. Men were not as burdened with the daily camp chores.
It was in the winter camps that rapid transformations occurring in the life of the Shahsavan could be witnessed first hand. Nomadic pastoralism, historically an important human response to the particularities of the environment, was being challenged by more intensive methods of land use. This, together with the introduction of large-scale advanced systems of irrigation, had led to sedentarization of a sizable number of nomadic families, and brought major changes in the socio-economic and spatial organization of the Shahsavan tribe.
Mr. Sadeghi pointed out winter pastures that had been converted into agricultural lands. In 1978, estimates indicated that 2000 nomadic families had lost their winter pasturage (90,000 hectares) to the Aras River Irrigation Project, and over 20 Shahsavan winter camps, qishloq, had become agricultural land. On the average, each winter camp had the grazing capacity for fifteen family herds. Also, the traditional camp unit, oba, and tents, alachiq, were being replaced by planned permanent settlements and model homes.
The Shahsavan nomads forced to sedentarize either became tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or wage laborers in the nearby towns such as Parsabad or migrated to Ardabil or Tehran. The Shahsavan also formed companies, sherkat, modeled on the government farm corporations, which were agro-pastoral units in order to better deal with the changing conditions in the area. This form of adaptation brought about drastic changes in the labor organization of the family unit. As land replaced livestock as the major source of wealth and income many nomads considered selling their flocks and becoming sedentarized villagers and farmers.
Other examples of rapidly occurring change was the replacement of camel caravans by automobiles and trucks as the basic means of transportation during the seasonal migration, or for example the replacement of the ceremonial exchange of labor event at the summer camps for the pounding of the felt by kin and friends with machines located in the shops of Meshkin Shahr.
Mr. Sadeghi, as well as other members of the Moghanlu taifeh often remarked that they did not expect their grand-children to share their heritage of nomadic and tribal life. With such changes occurring among a people who relied primarily on oral tradition for cultural transmission, a documentary film was viewed as a valuable way of preserving and transmitting fragments of Shahsavan lifestyle for the future generations.
The Shahsavan began their spring migration to their traditional summer camps, yeyloq in early May. We filmed the start of the seasonal migration and followed them on their journey south to the foothills of the Sabalan mountain. The Moghanlu taifeh rely on two major routes during their migration. The Barzand route is utilized by pack animals and flocks, and the Ziveh and Salavat route is shared by camel caravans, flocks and cars simultaneously.
In the past three decades, the nomads have been forced into using a much narrower passage route south. This is due to the increased cultivation of land by the sedentary farmers particularly around the villages of Ziveh and Salavat. We filmed the process of setting up of temporary camp and the related activities as the Shahsavan gather on the northern approaches to the Sabalan range just east of the Meshkinshahr. They camp here for about a week, make trips to Meshkinshahr to buy supplies and wait for good weather to ascend the Sabalan range to their spring quarters.
The Moghanlu taifeh ascend the Hafteh Pass to reach their designated camps on the mountain known as yazliq, the in-between spring quarters on the southern flank of Sabalan range that can also be accessed from the towns of Nir and Sarab. The Shahsavan set up camp and remain their spring quarters for 4-5 weeks until the snow recedes allowing them to move to their summer camp, yeyloq, at higher elevations on the mountain. They remain in the summer camps nearly four months until cold weather forces them to begin their return migration around mid-September.
Time spent at the yeyloq is an enjoyable period of the year for the nomads. With the availability of lush pastures and many mountain springs, the Shahsavan graze their animals with ease. The sheep reach their top condition here and are sold before the start of the return migration. Traveling merchants visit the Shahsavan summer camps frequently selling cloth and household items. Professional wool separators, halaj, come from towns to convert the sheared wool into felt. Life in the yeyloq is particularly active for the women. In addition housekeeping, weaving, washing of the sheared wool, collection of brush for fuel much time is spent feasting, celebrating and visiting kinsmen.
As Ramadan the month of fasting approached we returned to Tehran to develop the footage. After Ramadan in late August we joined the Sadeghi camp again and filmed daily activities such as bread making, meal preparation, felt-making, herding, as well as, a wedding ceremony and related festivities. The wedding was a three hours walk from the Sadeghi camp. The bride was to arrive after a day's Jeep and horse ride from the northern flank of the Sabalan mountain. Travel difficulties delayed her arrival, and the groom's household was forced to go ahead with the festivities as many guests had assembled from distant camps and had to depart before nightfall. Later as we were descended back to Mr. Sadeghi's camp, we met the bride and her entourage making their way up the mountain to the bridegroom's camp, but it was too dark to film.
In Tehran we began to edit the one-light work print made from the original footage at the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT). It was September 1978, the Jaleh Square confrontation with security forces known as "Black Friday" had shaken the government and the country. Before a rough cut could be completed, the NIRT employees joined in the national strike against the government.
The strike continued until the toppling of the Pahlavi regime in early 1979. The revolutionary the government of Ayatollah Khomeini appointed Sadegh Ghotbzadeh as the new director of NIRT. A directive for a re-evaluation of all the projects brought everything to a standstill. Purges for political and ideological reasons began and NIRT suffered losses. In the chaotic state of affairs, we finally gave up any hope of being able to complete the film.
Unable to obtain the original copy of the film from NIRT, we only had about 2000
feet or about one hour of the work print in our possession. Four years later back
in the United States while doing her graduate studies at UCLA, my spouse obtained
a small grant to make a copy of the one-light work print to use as the new work print
for editing. Picture and sound editing was completed, and the narration for the film
was derived from an article I published on social change among the Shahsavan, and
Richard Tapper's book, Pastures and Politics, on the Shahsavan.
The Romance of the Nomads:
As I mentioned in the beginning the lure of the film Grass was to retrace the Bakhtiari foot steps fifty years later. Grass by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison released in 1925 was a quintessential film about adventure and the theme of struggle for survival among Bakhtiari pastoral nomads of central Iran.
The filmmakers spent two months with the Heidar Khan of the Baba Ahmadi taifeh of the Bakhtiari tribe migrating from their winter camps south of the city of Shushtar in Khuzistan, across the freezing Karun River, over the harrowing 15000 feet Zardeh Kuh to their summer pastures in Chahar Mahal area west of the city of Isfahan.
Both the film and the later book written by Merion Cooper portray the drama of the struggle between the Bakhtiari and nature for pastures and grass for their animals. Cooper speaks of nearly 50,000 Bakhtiari and 500,000 sheep and goats that make this twice yearly migration. The filmmakers skillfully focus on interesting details, and portray the spontaneous human drama of the Bakhtiari crossing the freezing Karun River and climbing up the Zardeh Kuh, some in bare feet, and their arrival in the summer camps.
What begins as a routine travel and adventure film becomes an amazingly faithful depiction of places, people, events and a portrayal of the sheer visual spectacle and drama of Bakhtiari migration. One can imagine that every Iranian student of documentary film have thought of returning to the Bakhtiari tribe to see what is left of their seasonal migration and possibly to film it. Underlying this desire in most cases is the romance of the nomads.
I certainly remember as a child captivating stories by older generations in Tabriz how of the caravans of nomads were attractive and beautiful as they filed by often awe struck urban on-lookers. Or about how the women, the newly weds, the camels, the horses were dressed very colorfully in their best. One only needs to flip through Parviz Tanavoli's book Shahsavan Rugs and Textiles to see the beautifully patterned horse blankets, bedding and luggage carriers, mafrash, to imagine how a caravan of them might have looked. In short, the romance was real and provided a powerful incentive for undertaking a filming project.
For foreign adventurers, explorers and scholars, tribes of Iran have been an entity with parameters, boundaries, identities and a name. The nomads have been easier to identify and relate to than the masses of the peasantry. Although in sheer numbers the tribal nomads have been small, governments have often been worried about them, their ability to organize, mobilize and to resist or avoid its power. As a result, politicians and historians have also been interested in them too.
For me, yet another reason for wanting to retrace the footsteps of Bakhtiari or filming the Shahsavan, was to understand change brought about by time, technology, economy, and politics. As with many things, as change comes, so comes the desire to preserve the traditional ways and culture of the "timeless" nomads.
In the filming the Shahsavan we avoided the newly adopted technological ways of doing things, for example using pickup trucks to go and come from the camps, or the use of Mercedes trucks to relocate sheep from the Moghan Steppe to the Sabalan range, or to show the canning factories in Moghan where the Shahsavan worked as day laborers. If I had to do the film again, I would show life as is instead of putting it through the filter of authenticity and the salvaging of the old ways. Similarly, I would not be so mindful of beautiful cinematography in terms of color or composition.
Today the world of ethnographic film and anthropological documentary film is grappling with the problems of filmmaker intervention, interpretation, and subjectivity and "positionality." Cultural understanding, presentation and representation of Iranian pastoral nomads, whether on film, in cinema, or in ethnography has come a long way and some ways to go yet.
The concern with power, politics, and the "poetics" of presentation and representation is a serious one for the identity of a people such as the Shahsavan. It should be also noted that in the chain of cinematic and anthropological experience, it is the viewer, the spectator, who takes up and rises to the challenges of the cross-cultural translation, comparison and interpretation made by the particular ethnographic situation and reality. See 52 snap shots form the film
Fereydoun Safizadeh teaches anthropology at Boston University. He holds a PhD in Anthropology and Middle East Studies from Harvard University.
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